Results season is upon us again and over the past week the internet has been awash with analysis and commentary arising from the publication of 2018 GCE/GCSE outcomes for England, Wales and Northern Ireland by the JCQ (Joint Council for Qualifications).

Indeed, with this focus on exam results, the release of another key public sector dataset - the DfE’s Employer Skills Survey (ESS) - has attracted relatively little attention despite the fact that this is ’one of the largest business surveys in the world’ involving the administration of just under 90,000 interviews with employers across the UK of all sizes and from all sectors (no we have no idea why such a large/expensive business survey would be funded by the Department for Education either but that is a question for another day).

Now in fairness, many of the findings of the 2017 ESS are not that dissimilar from those obtained last time around (i.e. from the 2015 survey), however notable takeaways still exist for the IT sector, not least with regards:

  • 1) Skills shortages and gaps - though we are periodically bombarded with horror stories about the incidence of skills shortages /skills gaps within the IT sector (and others!), the finding of this survey - one of the largest survey of employers in the UK/the world remember - show that in 2017, just 6 per cent of information/ communications employers (an approximation for IT used until the full survey data set is released) were experiencing skills shortages (i.e. a shortage of applicants for positions with the required skills, qualifications and/or experience) whilst 10 per cent believed their staff to have skills gaps (a shortfall between the skills held by staff and those needed of them by their employers) - significant no doubt but a world away from some of the more dramatic headlines of late.

    Moreover, when compared with the economy as a whole, it appears that whilst the incidence of skills shortages reported by information/communications firms was on par with the all sector average (again 6 per cent), the likelihood that they were experiencing skills gaps was actually less than that registered by UK businesses more generally (13 per cent of which stated they had skills gaps).
  • 2) Training activity - now perhaps unsurprisingly given that skills gaps were less common amongst information/communication firms) the 2017 ESS shows that businesses from this sector were less likely than others (collectively) to have provided training to their staff during the year running up to the survey (i.e. 60 and 66 per cent respectively stating this to be the case). In addition, they were much less likely to have a budget for training (28 vs 46 percent respectively) or to have gained the Investors in People standard (6 versus 15 percent).

    In fairness, it could be argued that given the level of qualifications held by staff there would be less of a need for training (i.e. almost one third of information/communications firms stated that more than 80 per cent of their staff had a level 4 qualification or above compared with just 10 per cent of employers as a whole) however, given that this is a continually developing sector with high skill requirements, it would seem somewhat reticent that the performance against these training indicators is below par, particularly given the growing uncertainty over availability of staff from the EU labour pool.
  • 3) Equal opportunities - the industry has lamented the shortfall in female representation for many years, yet a myriad of initiatives have failed to make a significant change in the situation. With this in mind then it is concerning that information/communication employers were less likely than others to have an equal opportunities policy (77 compared with 82 per cent of all employers) and are less likely to have formal procedures in place for employee consultation (26 vs 42 per cent).

As noted above, the ESS data we have looked at here does relate to a broader industry definition than would be desired and it may well be that analysis for IT in isolation (when data becomes available) throws up a slightly different result, however at this stage, keeping in line with the current focus on schools /exam performance it could be said that in the areas of skills development and equal opportunities at least, the information/communications sector is performing below average and ‘could try harder’.

Written by Peter Hounsome of Sagacity Research